2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge Review: We of the Never Never by Mrs Aeneas Gunn

Logo of a silhouette of a steampunkily-dressed woman in a hat carrying an umbrella. In white text on the silhouette is '2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge'.

We of the Never Never by Jeannie Gunn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Blurb from Goodreads

An Australian classic. Depicts the enduring hardships of life in the Australian outback and the battles against sexist and racial prejudices.

My review

One of the things I tried to do for this challenge was to read a number of books I have been meaning to read for some time. We of the Never Never was one such book. Because it is an Australian classic from the early 20th century, I expected to find parts of it confronting, and in that, I was not disappointed.

A quick precis: the book is a memoir of the author’s first year on the Elsey, a station in the Northern Territory, several days’ journey (by the modes of transport then available) from Katherine. She is there because she has just married the Elsey’s manager, referred to in the book as “the Maluka” (this is later explained to be a name given to him by the Aboriginal people they have contact with and is, at least, so the author tells us, untranslateable). She is the only non-Aboriginal woman on the Elsey. She tells the story of her journey from Darwin to the Elsey early in the Wet season, and goes on to narrate other episodes, including staffing difficulties, the completion of the homestead and trips out on the station.

The book is a product of its time, and much of what I expected to, and did, find confronting is a reflection of that. The best example of this is the author’s attitude towards race and class. She – or, at least, her persona as narrator – for the most part likes the people she finds on the Elsey, whether they are Black, white or Chinese (the cooks), but her attitude towards all of them is very plainly that of the lady of the manor towards the peasants in the village. Even when describing situations in which another person knows more than she does, her tone is patronising and condescending. This is most obvious in relation to her attitude towards the Aboriginal people she describes. There is no acknowledgement that she is discussing people who come from a cultural background entirely unlike hers, who have a different set of values to hers. Rather, she judges them as if her values are the only possible standard, and finds them lacking and childlike. There is a considerable degree of the “noble savage” myth in her perception of them, and a total lack of understanding of the great injustice that had already been done to them, which was continuing, and to which she contributed. I found this jarring and insulting.

I also found the author’s attitude to gender roles troubling, although once again, I can understand it to be a product of the time. She readily accepts her position as the (relatively) cosseted sole white woman, and all that goes with that. That said, she shows a willingness to chip in that belies her princess-like status to some extent, and one might wonder how much of the avowed compliance with gender roles was exaggerated for the audience.

Finally, while the author acknowledges many of the hardships, difficulties and dangers faced by people living on a remote station in the early twentieth century, the book as a whole still seems to me to romanticise that life to a significant extent.

Despite my criticisms, Mrs Gunn wrote clearly and in a manner generally easy to follow, although, because of the pseudonyms she uses for many characters (particularly the white stockmen), it can be easy to get them confused. This perhaps contributes to the classist overtones of the book. Similarly, she refers to her husband as “the Maluka” from the beginning of the book, but the explanation does not come until about a third of the way in.

We of the Never Never is worth reading for two reasons. First, it is a book by a woman about a woman’s life in a situation about which we know comparatively little (especially as it applied to women). Secondly, and more importantly, it gives some insight (although not, perhaps, the insight the author intended) into attitudes of the day in relation to race and gender, especially the former, and the atrocities committed under the guiding light of those attitudes. This helps us to understand how far we have to go in trying to redress those wrongs.

This is a review for the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge. You can see my full list of books here. You can find a full list of my reviews, and other posts relevant to the challenge, here.


Categories: arts & entertainment, Culture, gender & feminism

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